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* Wilfredo Colón Earns ACS Award for Encouraging Disadvantaged Students
Wilfredo Colón Earns ACS Award for Encouraging Disadvantaged Students
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In 2006, interns from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Minority Undergraduate Research Program in Bioscience and Biotechnology did research in labs on campus. Photo by Lonny Kalfus.
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Wilfredo Colón Earns ACS Award for Encouraging Disadvantaged Students

As an undergraduate at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez, Wilfredo (Freddy) Colón thought medicine was the only option for students who wanted to pursue a career in science. Then he met Professor Maria Aponte and was invited to work in her research lab, helping to synthesize polymers. The experience inspired him to earn a doctorate in chemistry and, like Aponte, to reach out to disadvantaged students and expand their view of the sciences.

Colón, an associate professor of chemistry and chemical biology, has since earned national recognition for his efforts. On March 29, he received the American Chemical Society (ACS) Award for Encouraging Disadvantaged Students into Careers in the Chemical Sciences.

“Exposure is critical for these students. They have the ability, but they have no idea just how many opportunities are available to them.”
—Wilfredo Colón

The honor includes a $10,000 grant to help a nonprofit institution attract underrepresented students to the chemical sciences and engineering. Colón plans to use the grant as seed money to endow an internship program to provide community college students with a summer research experience at Rensselaer.

“I was a student who started out at community college,” Colón said. “I’d like to identify a student like me, someone who has the potential and desire to pursue a degree in chemistry, who could benefit from having a research experience and a mentor to guide them through the process of transferring to a four-year college.”

Colón transferred to the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez, where he earned his bachelor’s in chemistry. He then obtained his doctorate in chemistry at Texas A&M University. He went on to serve as a postdoctoral associate and a National Science Foundation (NSF) postdoctoral fellow at the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia, before joining Rensselaer in 1997.

Even as a young faculty member, Colón knew he wanted to share his passion for research and chemistry with students who came from backgrounds similar to his. Two years after arriving at Rensselaer, he submitted a proposal to the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation Special Grant Program in the Chemical Sciences, requesting funds to provide high school students with a summer research experience. Colón had received a New Faculty Award from the Dreyfus Foundation in 1997. His ACS award also is sponsored by the foundation, which seeks to “advance the science of chemistry, chemical engineering, and related sciences as a means of improving human relations and circumstances.”

Colón’s proposal was accepted, and the Dreyfus Foundation funded the first two years of his four-year program. Rensselaer provided matching support for the third and fourth years. From 2000 through 2003, approximately 40 local high school students benefited from the program.

“Typically, young faculty members are discouraged from getting involved in these types of programs because they are time-consuming and the focus should be on earning tenure. But Rensselaer has always been very supportive of my educational activities,” Colón said.

After the high school program ended, Colón turned his attention to undergraduates. In 2006, he and Christopher Bystroff, associate professor of biology, invited exceptional college students from diverse backgrounds to participate in summer internships at Rensselaer. The program — funded by an educational grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and directed by Provost Robert Palazzo — targeted underrepresented populations, including young women and students from Puerto Rico and historically minority institutions. Some students were actively seeking undergraduate research experience. Others had little or no exposure to academic research.

By the end of the summer, students had experienced both the challenges and rewards of life as a research scientist. Many, for the first time, saw graduate school as a possibility.

“Exposure is critical for these students,” Colón said. “They have the ability, but they have no idea just how many opportunities are available to them.

“I was a perfect example,” he added. “I wanted to be a doctor because I’d been to the doctor often as an asthmatic child. I’d never met a scientist; I honestly did not know these types of careers existed until I had the research experience in Professor Aponte’s lab.”

Aponte remembers Colón as a good student who shared her enthusiasm for science and displayed a genuine interest in research. She expressed pride in her former student’s success, but was quick to add that it’s “a natural result of his hard work.”

Those sentiments were echoed by Curt Breneman, professor and acting department head, Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology. “Freddy has both the passion and the talent to involve underrepresented students in chemistry and the sciences in general,” Breneman said. ‘We’re very proud of him. We’ve always known he would do great things.”

A fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Colón also has received the Rensselaer Early Career Award, an NSF Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, and an NSF Faculty Early Career Development Award.

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Inside Rensselaer
Volume 5, Number 6, April 1, 2011
©2010 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
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